Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book Review Seven Last Words

I'm jealous of Fr. James Martin. Yes, I know that jealousy is a sin, but I guess I'm jealous in a good way. Fr. Martin has a wonderful writing style that cuts through all the unnecessary minutae that can easily distract a reader and gets at the heart of the matter. I'm a slow learner, but hopefully my own writing will be as clear and concise as his. I guess, like all of life, it's a work in progress!

 Fr. Martin's latest book is Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship with Jesus (NY: Harper One, 2016). This book is a collection of short pastoral reflections on Jesus' seven last words from the cross:

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." 

"Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."

"Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother." 

"My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" 

"I am thirsty." 

"It is finished." 

"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." 

The seven last words are found in various places in the four gospels and in many parishes they have been a source for meditation and reflection on Holy Friday services. This particular collection of meditations were delivered last year at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. 

Holy Friday and Easter Sunday are the highlight or hallmark of the Christian year, but they also contain so many images and themes that it can be overwhelming; I always find it difficult to focus on one particular theme or image.  After all one could meditate on Jesus' betrayal in the Garden of Gethsamane as well as the Resurrected Lord's post-Easter meal with his disciples on the Galilee beach. Or what about John the Beloved Disciple and the Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross? 

Yet Fr. Martin reminds us that while these themes and images are important, the one central image is Jesus hanging from the cross on that dark and dismal Friday two thousand years ago. This was a cross that brought death, but also was the gateway to eternal life. 

Don't be fooled by the brevity of this book either. While only 134 pages each page is worth savoring at a slow pace. I found the various stories and anecdotes  book to be very moving. There is one story in the opening chapter about a sister who forgave the person who killed her sister, her sister's husband, and her sister's unborn child. I sat there just thinking of the wide range of emotions, feelings, pain, and anger that the surviving sister must have felt, yet, in the end mustered up enough love to forgive. Forgiveness is the root of our spiritual life, and Fr. Martin reminds us, is a central aspect of the first meditation too. 

The nice thing about Seven Last Words is that it is a book that you can return too every year. So many books on Christian spirituality are either "once and done" you either pass them along to a friend or they are forgotten on your bookshelf. Yet Seven Last Words will certainly serve as a resource for the future as we all grow and develop in Christ. 

About Fr. James Martin, SJ
For those of you who don't know him, Fr. Martin is a Jesuit priest, editor at large for America Magazine, and the author of numerous books, The Abbey, Jesus: A Pilgrimage, and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review The Collar

As a regular book reviewer I receive many books in the mail. Some look very interesting and I want to read them right away. Others look interesting and I feel like I'll read them soon. Then there are the books that I'll most likely never review. Sue Sorensen's The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014) certainly falls into the first category. When this book came across my desk I new that I had to read it immediately.

Sorensen is a professor of English at the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg and is married to a Lutheran pastor. Sorensen's marriage and long-term relationship with a pastor-husband, combined with her teaching literature in a university makes her the best person to right a book such as this one.

You probably don't think of pastors and clergy being smack in the middle of many television programs, films, or books, but we are there. Actually, according to Sorensen pastors seem to be everywhere!  I remember watching the 70's TV hit MASH and seeing Fr. Mulchahey dressed in his battle fatigues and collar hashing it up with Hawkye and Pierce. Or perhaps you've watched the funny British TV program The Vicar of Dibley with a female Anglican priest as the star of the show or the new British comedy-drama Rev with it's drinking and smoking priest as the main character. The list goes on. It's actually quite eye opening when you sit down and make a list of all the central clergy characters that appear in our cultural legacy. Sorensen sifts through all of this and provides her readers with some examples of how clergy are portrayed.

Sorensen provides us with plenty of examples too, perhaps too much at times. Each chapter includes many examples of clergy characters and I found myself pausing to get my bearings. Some of course I've heard of, others, like the main clergy character in William Golding's The Spire, I have not. Like Will Willimon who wrote the Foreward to this book, I too have read many clergy novels and short stories, but after reading Sorensen's book I will be reading a few more really soon.

This is a type of book that seminary students or newly ordained pastors should read. While reading I kept on thinking of pastoral identity or identities, how each generation speaks about or showcases clergy. While reading Anthony Trollope for example one gets a very different feeling for clergy as one would if they would read A Month of Sunday's by Isla Morley or Give Us This Day by Jonathan Tulloch whose clergy are spiritually complicated and often conflicted. Life and faith is not black and white but all too often our culture and media portrays them as such. I cannot for example read a Jan Karon novel, I find her Pastor Tim too saccharine for my tastes, so too with the TV program 7th Heaven. All the characters seem one dimensional to me. I'd much rather watch Rev not just for the laughs, but for the real spiritual struggles that clergy go through.

I highly commend Prof. Sorensen for not only sifting through the thousands of pages of material that went into her research but for writing a succinct and clear analysis of her findings. The Collar is certainly a book that I will keep and will re-read sections of in the near future. I do hope however that Prof. Sorensen continue her work in this area, the field is very large and there is much more to say about clergy, culture, identity, about the role of clergy in the Church but also in the world.

For more information about The Collar click here 

For more information about Professor Sorensen click here 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book Review Canoeing the Mountains

When I was a young newly ordained pastor one of the first things I kept saying to myself was, "I never learned this in seminary, I never learned this in seminary, I never learned this in seminary." There's so much that one cannot learn in three years of study. I had no idea how to read a budget or organize a study group. I had no idea about forms and administrative work or how to fix the copy machine. I'm not alone either. Most pastors have the same feeling when they leave seminary too, saying, "I never learned this in seminary."

Ted Bolsinger's new book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Unchartered Territory (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2015) is a must read not just for newly ordained clergy but for seminary students as well. Bolsinger is the vice president for vocation and formation and teaches practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. His pastoral experience combined with his working with seminary students makes him the best person to write this type of book.

Bolsinger weaves his narrative on Christian leadership around the famous Lewis and Clark expedition in the early 18th century. Sent by Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, together with their team of explorers, set out to map the western portion of North America. Since they were familiar with the colonies and areas of the Eastern seaboard they brought with them canoes and kayaks so they could navigate the many waterways that they would encounter. After all, the Eastern seaboard is full of lakes, rivers, and streams. They assumed that they would encounter the same in the West. They were proved wrong when they hit the Rocky Mountains. They weren't prepared for mountains. They weren't prepared for hiking them. They weren't prepared for mountain range after mountain range. They had to quickly change plans, re-think their original ideas, and get creative very quickly if they were going to succeed on their journey.

Bolsinger takes up the Lewis and Clark theme and applies it to pastors. We are in an ever changing Church, a Church which is now seeing steep declines among middle age and younger members, decline in income, shifting Sunday Church attendances, and also a shift in new coming seminary students who used to be well formed in the Christian faith and more and more have entered seminary not just as a preparation for ordination but to learn more about Christianity in general. Change is hard. Change can seem daunting, overwhelming even. When faced with a challenge or issue one usually falls back ones training. Yet the Lewis and Clark expedition shows us that we cannot keep doing the same thing again and again and expect the same results. Change requires creativity and the humility to learn something new, to become vulnerable to the task at hand.

This book includes short vignettes from the journals and letters of Lewis and Clark combined with other personal anecdotal material. He also brings to the fore basic leadership qualities that are needed in the 21st century Church.

Overall I found this book to be very stimulating and engaging and one which I already recommended to a few of my clergy colleagues. However, being that this book was about Christian leadership written for pastors or pastors in training, and that this book is for the Church at large, I kept wondering how come there was so little Scripture included in it? I fully realize that this book is not a Bible study on leadership, but I did expect a few Scriptural stories that could have been woven through the narrative as examples. There were plenty of people in the Bible who were faced with overwhelming challenges and it would have been great to include a few, perhaps at the beginning of each chapter as a way to highlight our Christian tradition.

I highly commend Tod Bolsinger for writing this book and for brining to light the importance of re-thinking how we lead, pastor, and administer our parishes and congregations.

For more information about Canoeing the Mountain click here